Raiders of a cruel lot
Alistair Moffat refuses to fly the flag for the Border reivers, says Rosemary Goring
The perpetual romance attached to the Scottish Borders was fostered not only by Walter Scott’s stirring historical novels, but by a national sense of misty-eyed patriotism. This was triggered partly by the beauty and mystery of the region, and partly by the staggeringly brave and bloody-minded attitude of the Borderers who, for those tucked safely in their central-belt homes and never called upon to raise as much as a shout, epitomised the personality of the ancient noble Scot they aspired to.
But the reality of what went on in the Borders was far from pretty. For over a hundred years – from the late 15th century to the union of crowns in 1603 – this neck of land was ravaged, raped and raided, from small-scale thefts and harrying to widespread murder and looting. Much of the damage was inflicted by passing Scottish and English armies. Yet almost as much mayhem was wrought by the Borderers themselves, in the form of fiercely criminal families who created a climate of utter lawlessness where no neighbour’s property was safe and no
Iallegiances mattered – except those of kin. And even those could be broken.
The worst period began in the 1540s with the Rough Wooing, when Henry VIII tried to force Scotland into an alliance through marriage. But while this political strong-arming created a situation little short of a nightmare for the Borderers, Alistair Moffat shows how there were few nights in that century when a farmer, or his livestock, could sleep easy. Border folk were rightly more afraid of other Borderers than of any king’s men. In the second half of the 16th century, reiving was at its very worst. Astutely, Moffat links this surge with the poor climate in those decades, when crops failed and the people were poorer than ever. Clearly there was a macho thrill for those involved in the “riding”, but economic necessity was a root cause. n geographic terms, the Borders are like the restaurant table squeezed between the kitchen and the toilets. The doors were always swinging open, bashing them on the back of the head, with a constant stream of people rushing to and fro around them. Moffat gives a vivid overview of the way the politics of the time impinged upon the Borders, showing how remorselessly trampled and scorched the region was as blows were struck and armies trampled through. However mean and cruel many of the reivers undoubtedly were, it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for their situation. But it was an age of violent extremes, when hangings, beheadings and burnings were common, and the reivers were men of their times.
Families such as the Armstrongs, Kerrs, Grahams and Humes, to name but a few, terrorised the Border marches. While Moffat implicitly applauds their energy and their macabre humour, he makes no excuse for their cruelty, and is at pains to make us comprehend how unpleasant life must have been for those whose animals, homes and families fell victim to these bandits.
If the kings on both sides of the border could do nothing to quell them, how much more vulnerable was an unprotected farmer or villager.
Written, understandably, from a Scottish perspective, The Reivers offers a spirited and colourful account of a century of dastardly but not always indefensible behaviour. On some levels it cannot rival George MacDonald Fraser’s The Steel Bonnets, a masterly account of the Border
Alistair Moffat’s effort does not romanticise the reivers’ deeds